Before we could record music, it was not even close to being as accessible as it is today. Nowadays, we just open Spotify on our phones, and almost all of the world’s music is there. But only 150 years ago, you had to find musicians to play the music you wanted to hear. If you couldn’t play yourself or hire anybody to play, you had to make do without music, or maybe hum the tune or whistle it. Of course, this wasn’t very practical. What did people do about it? They invented mechanical musical instruments!
You have probably seen or owned a music box at some point in your life. This box is a great example of a mechanical musical instrument. But there is so much more to mechanical instruments than that! Back in the day, they were found in people’s homes, at fairgrounds, theaters, and any other place where music was needed to add to the experience.
We are now going to look at three different kinds of mechanical musical instruments: band organs, orchestrions, and player pianos.
Reading the heading, you might think that you’ve never heard one of these before. But that’s wrong! Do you know the music that comes as you sit on a pony at the merry-go-round? That’s a band organ you’re hearing! It works pretty much like a self-playing piano does, with perforated cylinders. Many also feature percussion, so it’s not just an organ sound.
They are often very ornate and look like they are always ready to entertain!
Orchestrions are self-playing instruments where several instruments are contained within the same frame. Many orchestrions contain a piano. The music comes through pipes and they are operated by a pinned cylinder or a music roll. An orchestrion can include both wind and string instruments, as well as percussion, which really makes it sound like an orchestra!
Self-playing pianos were extremely popular during the 19th century and everybody wanted to have one. They did, of course, play automatically, but you had to foot-pump it, which meant that you had control of the tempo. The information on the piano roll didn’t contain anything that helped with the emotion in the music, so you had to add that yourself!
There are still people who want to have a nice piano without actually being able to play it. This means that there is actually still a demand for self-playing pianos.
Bonus: the marble machine
If you have not yet watched this video featuring a modern mechanical musical instrument, you have to do it now! 2000 marbles bounce in and out of the instrument to create really nice music with a melody line, a bass line, percussion, and everything else a good pop song needs to include. This is proof that mechanical musical instruments aren’t dead! Over 100 million views on YouTube means the message is clear – people are still fascinated by the music mechanical musical instruments produce.